What psychologists say...

In society’s quest to have its individuals adhere to its social norms, it follows the centuries-old tradition of social sanctions.

As individuals, we constantly thrive to find, mould and maintain our self-identities, which is an integral part of our personality. In the journey of finding ourselves, we often don’t realise the immense impact that society and social norms have upon us. In society’s quest to have its individuals adhere to its social norms, it follows the centuries-old tradition of social sanctions.

What are social norms?

Social norms are generally considered as prescriptions of behaviours and attitudes that are considered acceptable or not in a given social unit. They describe the socially appropriate way to act and denounce the inappropriate one. Social norms specific to groups do have a distinctive quality as each group creates its own standards for what attitudes or behaviours are acceptable and desirable. 

Bengaluru-based clinical psychologist and psychotherapist Pallavi Tomar explains that in clinical practice, many patients who present symptoms of anxiety disorders and clinical depression have difficulties in coming to terms with discrepancies in their own experience of the self, and the expectation they believe the society has from them in terms of what is deemed acceptable.

“Although the presence and influence of such discrepancies impact each individual differently, yet what I have seen is that it isn’t just the fear of being ridiculed and rejected as individuals, but also the worry of the repercussions on their family members and those close to them that these individuals carry upon themselves,” remarks Pallavi. “This significantly impacts their emotions, thought processes and actions.”

She adds that in worrying about the repercussions on family members and other close ones, a lot of guilt and shame exists in individuals, on feeling responsible for putting their family and friends through social ostracisation of any kind.

Pallavi also points out that this even makes it difficult for these individuals to ask for any kind of support from near and dear ones, as there seemingly exists a tremendous pressure of adhering to standards that are considered ‘normal’ by the community they belong to, and the society at large.

Many of the psychological effects of social sanctions that are mindless to the uniqueness of human nature and individual personalities are immense and adverse. Growing up in noxious, regressive, suppressing and unfriendly environments shape personalities that have significant difficulties in emotional regulation, in emotionally relating to self and others, and in creating and maintaining a stable sense of self-image and self-identity. More often than not, they find themselves in unstable and volatile inter-personal relationships, and into self-destructive and self-injurious behaviour. These adult experiences that arise due to the fear of harsh social sanction, and the constant fear of rejection by family and society at large pose a damaging burden on the psyche of these vulnerable individuals.

According to the young and budding educationist and writer Gunjan Narang, who is currently based in Bengaluru, the debate highlights a major dilemma wherein, on one hand, she doesn’t desire to be socially isolated, but still be known for her individuality. “I really desire to leave a mark in the society that I belong to,” says Gunjan. “I do wish to belong to a larger group and be accepted by them, but I also fear the judgements of being too eccentric, or rebellious and/or abnormal.”

Is it normal or not?

It is interesting when she subtly uses the word abnormal to hint at some elements outside the social or cultural norms. From a more clearer objective lens, many elements outside the social or cultural norms cannot be laid out as being abnormal, but can well be attributed to rising out of an individual’s divergent thought patterns and creative ideas. When it is a well-acknowledged fact that every individual is unique — courtesy an ocean of research and studies in various disciplines in the study of humans — it is ironic that many social norms and social sanctions still manage to hold a strong fortress to curb the uniqueness of an individual.

Gunjan asserts that she doesn’t want to be rejected by everyone on the grounds of labels based on any kind of prejudice or discrimination or for going against any social norm that otherwise gives her the sense of being suffocated. “I also don’t want to sacrifice my individual choices for the ‘greater good’ and ‘maximised justice’ that has been decided by someone in the past. Too much conformity will compromise on my being, and will allow social systems (oppressive or not) to continue, thus minimising the possibility of change,” she adds.

The struggles for individuals in different societies across the world is more or less the same — to strive to maintain each one’s individuality despite the straps of the society around oneself.

Although creating and maintaining individual identities is better than heavily conforming to social norms, the healthier strategy could lie in defining and maintaining a balance between preserving individual identities and still belonging to society as it becomes harder for a man to live in isolation.

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